Inside The Mind Of UK Prime Minister Theresa May

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Inside The Mind Of UK Prime Minister Theresa May

Inside The Mind Of UK Prime Minister Theresa May

Election poker – the psychology behind calling an early ‘snap’ election

By Dr Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham

Professor Alastair Smith from New York University, formerly at Yale, has published academic research examining polling data and election results behind all British General Elections since 1945. His finding: the psychology behind calling an early General Election can seriously backfire on the leader.

The judgement over timing, often referred to as the most important decision any Prime Minister makes, profoundly influences electoral results. The major psychological miscalculation leaders repeatedly suffer from is in believing that going to the country early converts political popularity at the time of calling an election, into votes.

Examples of this miscalculation abound in politicians from all around the world.

In May 1970, Harold Wilson announced a snap election to take advantage of Labour’s popularity over the Conservatives, Labour having just overtaken the Conservatives in the polls for the first time in three years. However, during the election, Labour’s support collapsed, resulting in the Conservatives winning 330 of 630 seats.

In 1997, President Jacque Chirac’s decision to call an early election for the French lower house resulted in an immediate decline in his movement’s support, and large electoral gains for the left. The 1998 Australian general election repeated this same pattern.

Alastair Smith’s study, published in the British Journal of Political Science concluded that leaders who call elections early experience a decline in their popular support.

What might this mean for the current British Prime Minister Theresa May, who decided to call an early or ‘snap’ election several weeks ago, but may be coming to regret this decision?

She has seen her commanding poll lead at the beginning of the election campaign slide dramatically, precisely as predicted by Alastair Smith’s study, published before the current UK General Election.

Professor Alastair Smith’s conclusion from his study of past ‘snap’ or early elections, is that the factor that appears to particularly harm a leader’s support is ‘pre-announcement popularity’. In other words, the more popular a leader is at the time of calling an election, the greater the likelihood that their support will decline during the election process.

Source: Theresa Mary May, aka Theresa May, is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party. This caricature of Theresa May was adapted from a Creative Commons licensed photo from Policy Exchange’s Flickr photostream. Date 21 July 2016, 07:11 Source Theresa May – Caricature Author DonkeyHotey

While currently commentators are blaming many possible factors for Theresa May’s current slide in popularity, Alastair Smith comes up with an entirely novel explanation.

Alastair Smith argues that calling a General Election early is a psychological poker game in which the electorate might call a leader’s bluff. The cards which Theresa May holds are how she thinks her government will perform in the future were there to be no election. In other words, she has the advantage of information about the country’s prospects which the electorate doesn’t have. This may be misgivings about the Brexit negotiations and process, for example.

Prime Ministers always have access to insider information about the likely future performance of their government that voters don’t have. For example, they will have been briefed about forthcoming economic conditions or the likely outcome of Brexit negotiations. Alastair Smith contends that the key psychology behind the choice of date of the election is that it signals to voters a leader’s expectations about the future.

Unfortunately for leaders such as Theresa May, according to Alastair Smith, in exploiting her informational advantage and deciding they’ll look more attractive in an immediate election, compared to a future one, they tip their hand to the voters.

Alastair Smith uses the example of Margaret Thatcher to illustrate his point. She chose the opposite psychological strategy to that of Theresa May in the election poker game.

In 1982, Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her popularity, following victory in the Falklands war. Given that she had been elected in 1979, she was not required to call an election before 1984. According to Alastair Smith’s analysis, her enormous popularity following the war should have presented the ideal opportunity to secure another five-year term.

Speculation about the possibility of an early snap vote was so intense that pollsters conducted surveys on the desirability and likelihood of an early election.

Margaret Thatcher’s popularity would no doubt have ensured victory had she called an election in 1982. By waiting, she risked having her popularity undermined by policy failures.

However, the extent to which Margaret Thatcher feared this depended on how well she expected to perform over the coming year. Were she to be convinced that she had effective solutions to whatever problems lay ahead, waiting to be tested in the polls would pose little threat, as she’d expect to be re-elected anyway.

Were she to have been less confident about her polices, however, waiting to call an election might jeopardize a second term in office.

The more confident Margaret Thatcher was about the future, the less her motivation to call an early vote; the less confident, the greater her incentive to cash-in on past successes with a snap election.

The key psychology over the timing of elections is that they reveal information about how well incumbents expect to perform in the future.

Alastair Smith’s study, ‘Election Timing in Majoritarian Parliaments’, points to the date when Margaret Thatcher went to the country as confirmation of his theory.

The last possible date to call an election was 9th May 1984. Instead, Margaret Thatcher went to the country in June 1983. In their later autobiographies, both she and her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, report fears over inflation as influencing her timing. By calling the election a year early, they prevented the electorate from experiencing worsening inflation, which presumably would have resulted in a decline in Conservative popularity.

Hugh Gaitskell gave the following reply to Eden’s 1955 election announcement “The real reason for having an election eighteen months early is, however, not that we have a new Prime Minister …. [but] that the government are worried about the economic situation.”

The key psychology over the timing of elections is that they reveal information about how well incumbents expect to perform in the future.

All other things being equal, competent governments wait longer before going to the country.

It is less-confident leaders who take refuge in the opportunity to call an early election. So, those who pursue such snap elections should expect to see their support decline.

The signal of an early election reveals that the future might not be so rosy, and that therefore the act of calling an election in itself reveals information that the government is trying to conceal.

A psychologically astute opposition might be able to capitalise on this effect.

Dr Raj Persaud is a Harley Street Consultant Psychiatrist and Professor Adrian Furnham Professor of Psychology at University College London. Both are authors of several best-selling psychology books. Dr Raj Persaud is author of ‘The Motivated Mind’, published by Bantam Press and Professor Adrian Furnham with David Pendleton are authors of ‘Leadership: All You Need To Know’, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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